Practitioner Perspectives: A Q&A on Steering Open Education in the Ocean State

Daniela Fairchild

Dragan Gill

In the following Q&A, NEBHE’s Fellow for Open Education Lindsey Gumb takes the pulse of Open Education in Rhode Island with two key leaders in the field: Dragan Gill, who is a Rhode Island College reference librarian and co-chair of the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative, and Daniela Fairchild, who is director of the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.

In September 2016, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced her Open Textbook Initiative, challenging the state’s postsecondary institutions to save Rhode Island students $5 million over five years in textbook costs using “open” textbooks instead of expensive, commercial textbooks. The Rhode Island Office of Innovation (InnovateRI) has helped lead the initiative through its partnership with the Adams Library at Rhode Island College (RIC) and steering committee that includes a librarian from each of the state’s postsecondary institutions. Now a little over four years into the initiative we ask Dragan Gill and Daniela Fairchild to share their thoughts on the status of the challenge, lessons learned and their hopes for the future use of open educational resources (OER) in Rhode Island.

Gumb: Interestingly, Rhode Island’s Open Textbook Initiative isn’t mandated by any specific legislation. In what ways has this made the challenge easier … or more difficult?

Gill: Without legislation, we have been able to develop individualized methods of reaching a shared goal within the scope of the governor’s challenge. Each institution has been able to find a meaningful way to incorporate open textbooks and OER in their curricula, while developing strategies that fit within the scope of the institution’s mission and goals, resources and support they have for this work. On the other hand, having funding tied to well-crafted legislation would better support the staffing, professional development and faculty time needed to further the initiative. Having had time to understand the needs of Rhode Island institutions and to review legislation from other states, I believe we now could work with the governor to draft legislation that supports and guides OER efforts in a pragmatic way for our state.

Fairchild: Legislation can be a blessing and a curse. While it adds gravity and force to an initiative, it also can lead to prescription and a compliance-focus. Sometimes, those doing the work end up spending more time preparing for the next mandated legislative report and less time thinking strategically and creatively about the best way to solve for the need or problem identified through legislation. As one of my policy-wonk colleagues once said, legislation is a sledgehammer. There are times when that is necessary; there are times when one would be better served by a scalpel. For this initiative specifically, not having associated legislation has allowed for campus-specific efforts and has allowed a true fostering of a “coalition of the willing.” It has let us experiment and think creatively for each institution’s context. That said, it has meant that the work has truly stayed a coalition of the willing—those who have understood the need have continued to engage. Those who might need a sledgehammer-like prod have not. To Dragan’s point above, now that we are four years into the work, and have a more intricate understanding of the needed guidance, resources and supports for our collective institutions—as well as a sense of lofty, yet realistic goals—it might be time to revisit the conversation.

Gumb: This challenge tracks student savings data from using open textbooks in place of commercial textbooks, but we know that OER does so much more than save students money. How is the Rhode Island Open Textbook Initiative Steering Committee addressing these other areas like equity and pedagogy?

Gill: Unfortunately, we aren’t doing as much as we’d like. Because the challenge was issued as part of the governor’s broader educational attainment goals, equity has been a key component of outreach, but we haven’t found a way to measure this across the state yet. On my campus, Rhode Island College, I have been working on collecting faculty OER and open textbook adoption data in our student information system for several reasons, including better analyzing the impact OER and open textbooks are having on student retention and completion. We are also currently working on creating a way to collect qualitative data about OER-enabled pedagogy practices across the state. We want this data collection to be both easy for faculty to use, but also provide meaningful information for the steering committee. We also want to showcase it. Lastly, this will provide a more complete picture of faculty engagement with openly licensed materials than our data collection thus far, which, focusing on adoption, hasn’t included more creative work or pedagogical practices.

Fairchild: We’ve seen this manifest in different ways at different institutions. Some of our steering committee members, knowing that textbook cost doesn’t resonate with their faculty as loudly as other rationale for open, have focused their “why” communication around open pedagogy, equity and even academic freedom. And, while Dragan is right that there is more to do on this front—and that data tracking around these pieces becomes a bit trickier—what we have seen is the Open Textbook Initiative serve as a launchpad for steering committee members to have those conversations. “Everyone! Listen up! The state has this challenge to save students money. Now that I have your attention, let me show you all the other reasons why open matters—and all the ways open can complement and support your own academic and pedagogical goals.”

Gumb: What has been the Steering Committee’s biggest challenge to date, and how are you working through it?

Gill: As a committee of librarians, we all have to balance our work on the initiative with the responsibilities we were hired for. To respect that this is different for each library, we have set very few hard deadlines and work with each campus to create their own goals towards supporting Open Education for the semester. But to leverage the strengths of the group, we use retreats to foster collaboration among committee members working on similar tasks or with members who have had successes in a problem area for others. Additionally, we have had some turnover in committee membership, which has brought in fresh ideas, but has made sustaining work and processes harder. In addition to having a call or meeting with each new member, we share outreach and training materials in a collection for all committee members to adapt and use.

Fairchild: I agree with Dragan … the natural cadence of steering committee turnover and the lack of dedicated time to support the work has been challenging, but we’ve been working through these things. And continuing to think through ways we can automate processes so they can endure even through steering-committee-member shifts. Longevity and sustainability are relevant issues too. Across campuses, we have leveraged the challenge to elevate open textbooks, but also open more broadly—and we’ve seen a lot of interest and excitement from faculty who are “early adopters” of open textbooks. As we continue, we will need to start connecting to the “early adopter” and “late adopter” faculty; this will require different communications tactics and different supports. We have begun this strategizing through the twice-annual steering committee retreats. And we plan to use the culmination of our current challenge phase to launch phase 2 and reinvigorate that engagement.

Gumb: Public and private institutions often embrace OER in different ways. How has your Steering Committee, which is composed of both, navigated these differences together?

Gill: By focusing on the value of open education, we are able to build our individual efforts based on a shared core understanding. For some campuses, equity and access are more important; for others, there’s more room to discuss creative pedagogy. But ultimately, all of us are working toward offering the best education to our students and, by working with a range of campus partners, we’re able to address both visions at each institution. One thing I’ve found interesting is how the conversation on each campus shifts. When the challenge began, equity and access resonated on my campus. But in sustaining our work, we’ve added exploring OER-enabled pedagogy. Conversely, I know my colleagues at Roger Williams University began their work heavily focused on faculty creation of OER, but in response to results from a student survey have been including more information about the impact of textbook costs on their students in their outreach efforts.

Unfortunately, there have also been inequities. Rhode Island’s Office of Postsecondary Council has funded the state’s three public institutions’ membership in the Open Education Network (OEN), an active community of higher education leaders who work together to build sustainable open education programs. But as the governing body for the public institutions, it cannot do the same for our private partners. Two private institutions have also advocated for funding and joined the OEN, but if we were to start over, having the funding for each institution to join the OEN or SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) would be high in my priorities.

Gumb: What makes you most proud when you look back on the past four years of this challenge?

Gill: In addition to being on track to meet our goal, I am most proud of our ability to quickly find and work with partners. National organizations like OEN, SPARC and Student PIRGs have all been collaborators since the start, but locally, we have also worked with: the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities for a training session and guidance on accessibility; Providence Public Library’s Tableau User Group, through the Data for Good Initiative, to visualize our data; the Rhode Island Teaching and Learning Consortium (RITL) to share our work and see how they can better help engage faculty; and the Office of Library and Information Services to co-sponsor a two-day “Copyright Bootcamp” for the steering committee and librarians across the state. In return, we provided an overview of OER and Open Access for public libraries through OLIS’s professional development workshop series, provided the first large dataset to the Tableau User Group, opened the Copyright Bootcamp to all librarians in the state, and with the background knowledge to do so, are advocates for more accessible teaching and learning materials on our campuses. This showcases the best of librarianship’s ability to bring experts and networks together to benefit all.

Fairchild: Hear, Hear! Now, my much more bureaucratic answer. I’m proud of co-creating something that has legs. In government (as with all systems and large institutions), change is hard. Status quo processes (whether explicit or not) are difficult to change. Initiatives launched by one administration are rarely kept alive through subsequent administrations—either because they are overtly reversed, or because they just fade after losing their executive branch champion. The Open Textbook Initiative has been messy and imperfect, but it has diffuse champions, including those who officially represent our work through the steering committee most notably, but also the faculty our committee members have worked with and the many partners. I think a lot about how to ensure the “stickiness” of innovation in public systems. And I am proud of how so many partners and people have come together to give this work one of the best shots at organic stickiness that I’ve seen.

Gumb: What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with legislators in the Northeast who might be considering issuing an open textbook challenge such as Rhode Island’s?

Gill: Plan ahead! Scan each institution for existing campus leaders and develop your steering committee or leadership before you announce the challenge. Define your goals and what measures you’ll use to assess progress before you start, but leave room for new ideas.

Fairchild: Just one? If you will permit me, here are three (they are short!) 1) Allow for creativity: Don’t regulate or regiment Open work so much that it stifles new thinking or doesn’t allow for those who you have tasked with the work to actually do the work—especially as the landscape and knowledge base around this is continuously maturing; 2) Foster collaboration: This shouldn’t just be a public institution thing, or something run through one school (even your flagship!), so be mindful of how you’re writing legislation to allow all institutions to see themselves as productive partners and supporters of your goals; 3) You don’t need money, necessarily (we did this without very much at all), but consider how and when targeted, smart investment can help. Dragan mentioned consortia memberships above: Those carry a small-dollar price tag and go a long way with securing buy-in at the outset (it shows that you are investing in the people who are going to make this happen for you) and that you care about the sustainability of this work. We additionally supported faculty with micro-grants to review and adopt open textbooks—which was important at the outset to show that leadership cared about this, but also is important later in any challenge for incentivizing the early or late adopters.


Related Posts:

5 Ways Open Educational Resources Can Help Students Succeed This Fall

Practitioner Perspectives: OER and a Call for Equity by Robin DeRosa

Practitioner Perspectives: Corcoran on NOLO—No-Cost & Low-Cost Course Designators

Practitioner Perspectives: A NEBHE Q&A with Thomas Edwards on Helping Students Save Money on Textbooks

Practitioner Perspectives: A NEBHE Q&A with Heather Miceli on How OER Promotes Hands-On Learning While Saving Students Money

What’s “Open” During COVID-19? In Global Pandemic, OER and Open Access Matter More than Ever

Massachusetts Is an OER Exemplar

Open Matters: A Brief Intro





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